Each spring in Southern Illinois arrives with soaking rain, blooming flowers, greening grass, and baseball. For the last seven springs the blossoms of April have brought me a new season of opportunity to serve the players, coaches, support staff, and management of the Southern Illinois Miners of the Frontier League of professional baseball. This is a rare privilege.
The Miners arrive in Marion, Illinois in late April having been signed during the winter, returning from last season’s team, or having been recruited during the recent combine for independent teams. They arrive with hearts full of promise, bodies full of talent, minds full of questions, and souls full of anxiety. We tend to get players either on their way up or on their way down in baseball. Some have completed their college baseball careers, but were not selected in the draft by a team affiliated with a major league team. They still believe they can play and hope playing in this league will give them the chance to play their way onto an affiliated team’s roster. Some come to us after years of playing with affiliated team of minor league baseball. For any number of reasons, they have been released and have found their way to Southern Illinois. They intend to retool one part of their game and to return to their climb toward the big leagues. Others have been released from minor league clubs and simply don’t want to get a regular job and be grownups. In any case, they are desperate to play baseball or they would not be here.
All these factors leave their hearts in a rather vulnerable place. At a glance one would not perceive this, but understanding their station in baseball makes it readily apparent. Like most gifted athletes, these young men have the poise, swagger, bravado, and air of confidence that some find off putting. They wear these traits like body armor, guarding their hearts from the doubts and insecurities that stalk their preseason workouts and the sleepless nights of late April and early May.
My role of service in this situation is simple, but has many facets. I aim to serve, each and all, as they are with the club. Whether they are here for a week, a season, or for years, I seek their best interests and the Lord’s purposes in their lives. This level of baseball affords me a unique opportunity and an immense responsibility. These young men are not burdened with enormous salaries or plush amenities that harden hearts and inflate egos. Their hearts are much closer to the surface and are quicker to hear the words of an older man who cares for them and wants the best for them, with no strings attached.
Here’s what that looks like on a typical day of the preseason:
· I download and print out the team roster so that I can memorize names, uniform numbers, and faces of each player and coach.
· I drive the 16 miles to the ballpark anticipating conversations, remembering relationships from past seasons, and preparing my heart in prayer.
· I arrive at the ballpark, pass through the player’s entrance, walk by the clubhouse, and exit to the hitting cage.
· At some point in the preseason, Mike Pinto, the COO and field manager of the club, invites me to introduce myself and my role with the team. For this I am very grateful.
· I will come to as many workouts as possible, and on game days I’ll arrive in time for batting practice.
· I will greet players at the hitting cage, group by group as they hit, or I’ll join them on the field as they stretch, throw, and take batting practice.
· I make it a point to meet each player, to ask about his home town, and about his path to this place in baseball. To hear their stories helps us to connect and for me to understand more of who they are. I also get a sense of how they perceive this point along their journey through professional baseball.
· Once introduced, some players will seek me out and others will begin to avoid me. I am, however, hard to avoid. I just keep showing up.
· During the preseason I will identify a player to be the player representative for Baseball Chapel. He will be the one I rely on to inform his teammates of Bible study and game day chapel times and locations during the season. He is also the player who helps gather players for chapels held on the road, led by the home team’s chapel leader.
· During these days of preseason, we will discuss the process for Sunday home game Baseball Chapels and the best day and time for a Bible study during each home stand.
· Occasionally I will have the opportunity to meet with a player or coach individually, over breakfast or coffee.
· Occasionally I will have the privilege to walk with a player or a coach through a crisis. We have walked with players as they lost family members, with support staff through cancer treatments, through relationship difficulties, injuries, surgeries, death, and other matters confidentiality forbids me to discuss.
· As preseason progresses, the roster is trimmed down until the opening day team is selected. That means many players will be traded or released, thus ending their stay in Marion. This is always painful and always strains relationships. Hearts once full of hope and expectation are suddenly crushed by feelings of rejection, failure, and even despair. For some, this is the end of their lives in baseball. For others, they will seek new opportunities elsewhere. In any case, I feel the grief of relationships lost.
Many people have said that professional baseball is a great game, but a terrible business. I have a sense of that each preseason. We start with a large group of hopeful, excited young men, and day by day a couple are released, a few are traded, some new ones arrive, and by opening day, the business is complete. Suddenly the roster is set, the games begin, and everything seems bright, new, and exciting.
Baseball, like spring in Southern Illinois, is full of new life, thunderstorms, sunshine, fear, joy, fulfillment, disappointment, runs, hits, errors, wins, and losses. This is why I’m here, to walk along with the players, coaches, management, and support staff through all of it. To do so is one of my life’s greatest joys.